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Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Today is the annual Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane. Too bad I won’t be attending. While virtually every other institution, (schools, government offices, banks, embassies, as well as restaurants and other businesses) is shut down, our school, Vientiane College, has decided, as usual, to remain open.

I really enjoy going to boat races in Laos, but I’m not going today because I have to work later. Although my lesson plans for this evening’s classes have been made, I’m not going down to the race area to enjoy a few hours of the races. It’s sunny and warm today, so I’d just end up getting sweaty and smelly, and, then, I’d have to motorbike back to the house, take a shower and get back to school. Not worth it. I really like spending the whole day at a race, not having to worry about being somewhere else later.

The school always gives some flimsy excuse for not being shut down. There was a post on the notice board advising teachers to tell students that the school is not being culturally insensitive or unaware, but the reason for remaining open is that authorities don’t give the school enough advance notice as to when the race will be held. That’s pure hogwash! We received the 2018 school calendar a few weeks ago and it shows that the boat race next year is on October 25th, which, fortuitously, coincides with the beginning of the mid-term break next October. That’s more than a year away. Not enough advance notice? Bull crap. If any of my students who show up tonight ask why we’re open, I’ll just tell them to ask the school administration. I’m sure as hell not going to give them the school’s excuse of “not enough advance notice.”

Now, having said that, the school is still, usually, a great place to work. It just gets under my skin (and is depressing) that we’re one of the very few institutions that are open today, and that the school, since I’ve been here, has never closed for this particular holiday. Ah, well, next year, I guess.

Bits and Pieces

Festival Time in Laos

Along with the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (see previous post), there have been a few other celebrations recently.

Just after the boat race, from Nov.23rd through the 25th, was the That Luang Festival, which honors Laos’ national symbol. Below is a night photo of That Luang (not my photo).

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

Next was the huge Laos National Day on Dec. 2nd, kind of like the U.S.’s Fourth of July. This year marked the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (Why is it that whenever you see an official country name that includes “People” or “Democratic Republic” it almost always seems to be a dictatorship or a Communist country? It’s neither democratic nor does it belong to the people. If the U.S. were named the “People’s Democratic Republic of the United States of America,” don’t you think it would be a completely authoritarian government? /end of opinion)

There was an enormous parade at the That Luang esplanade that involved 15,000 people from 45 different government and private sectors. The Vientiane Times reported that “National Day is a landmark date to reflect on the history of Laos and the ethnic Lao people fighting bravely against foreign colonialists and imperialists to protect their territory and bring independence and freedom to the Lao people.” (emphasis mine-who do you think they might be referring to?)

Along with all the parades and celebrations of National Day, Vientiane city or the Laos government decorated some of the main avenues with beautiful lights in the trees and along government ministry buildings. The lighting is a pale bluish-white color and it resembles Christmas tree lights. Riding my motorbike along the main avenue, Lane Xang (lahn zahng), is like riding in a winter wonderland. Well, except for the fact that there is no snow to enhance the scene, though it’s still beautiful. I hope they keep the lights up until after the New Year holiday.

Laos, a mainly Buddhist country, doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, but New Year’s Eve and Day are celebrated, with January 1st being a national holiday.

A Beautiful Automobile

I was cruising down the main road along the Mekong last week when I spotted a gorgeous blue and white automobile. I couldn’t take a photo of it (ain’t gonna try that while riding a motorbike), but as I got closer I saw that it was a Rolls Royce. Later, I looked on the internet and found that it was probably a Rolls Wraith. Here’s a photo from the ‘net that looks exactly like the automobile that I saw. (I dare not call it a “car.” That seems like the wrong description of this beauty. “Automobile” sounds classier, and I suppose I could also call it a “motor vehicle.”) As I rode alongside it (it was parked), I told myself “Don’t scratch it. Don’t hit it. Don’t even breath on it.”

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Down to Bangkok

The school term finishes in a few days, so Nai and I are travelling down to Bangkok for several days on the 22nd of this month. We’re going to take the overnight train from Nong Khai and are staying in a mid-priced hotel in the Silom section of the city, withing easy walking distance of the Sky Train and Underground system. Hope to have some fun, but have to be careful with the money. I don’t get paid again until January 29th. (An exception to spending too much is in the next section of this post, below.)

The Cosmos Beckons

With the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, the clear night skies have reawakened my interest in astronomy, one of my main hobbies when I lived in the ‘States. However, I don’t have a good pair of binoculars to satisfy my star gazing hunger. So, while I’m in Bangkok, I’m going to see if I can’t find a pair of binocs or perhaps even a small telescope. I know of a couple respectable places in Bangkok to go shopping. I want a pair of Nikon 7x50s or a pair of Celestron 15x70s or 20x80s. They’re all relatively cheap, so any of the three would be nice. A good 4 or 5 inch ‘scope would do nicely also, but I’ll probably have to stick with the binocs, unless I can find a good price on a telescope.

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Once again, the brilliant, white-clad crew from Luang Prabang won the traditional boat race category at the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival. Defending their championship from last year, they swept through the other competitors, winning races by large margins. At times they appeared to reduce their effort to save energy for the next race because their lead was so big. They’re an awesome crew, and the other teams will have to improve vastly to give them a challenge next year.

Thousands of people attended the festival, lining the banks of the Mekong or strolling on the car-free main road, which was closed to all motorized traffic. Because of the massive throng of people, it would have been impossible to drive a car or even operate a motorbike on this vendor-filled stretch of the normally traffic-heavy road. Nai and I walked the two kilometers from this area to the boat racing venue upstream. We found a small, covered food and beer booth where we watched the races out of the sun (but still in the heat) for a few hours, and then we walked another half a kilometer to the Kong View Restaurant and Bar, kind of an upscale place with upscale prices, but we could sit in the shade of trees with fans providing a welcome cooling breeze.

At day’s end we walked back to the main road in the cooler air of twilight and hung out at the Bor Pen Nyang rooftop bar and restaurant and watched the parade of people traveling up and down the main road.

Here then are a few photos of the festival–goods for sale, people and even a couple shots of the race.

Sandals for sale

There were lots of items for sale by the vendors at the usual night market, including these well-manicured feet. The sandals came for free. Most of the vendors along the main road were hawking products like TVs, mobile phones, and household appliances.

Children's Shoes

Need something else to put on your newly-bought feet? Try this whimsical collection of tiny sandals. Whoops, you might have to downsize those feet.

Stuffed Toy Animals

For the child in all of us. Would you like the baby chick, Garfield or the platypus? I had to ask another teacher what she thought the green animal was, so blame her if it’s not a platypus. Any other guesses?

Usa Laundry Soap

USA! USA! USA! Well, not really. It’s actually Lao lettering on bags of laundry soap. Quite a resemblance. You can try to make your own caption, something like “America: We ______” (then add a reference to cleaning up or something similar.)

Fabric for sale

These look like they would be used in making traditional Lao dresses. I don’t think they are genuine handicraft items–there were just too many of them and they were too cheap.

Phone case vendors

Selling is hard work. These two guys, one alert and one not, were trying to peddle mobile phone cases.

Big red balloon

I didn’t know exactly what these folks were doing. I figured the red object was some kind of balloon, and I was curious where it was going to be located. See the next photo to find out.

Overview of the festival

There’s the red balloon overlooking the crowd on the main street of the festival. The boat race itself was held a couple of kilometers upstream, to the right. It was a hot, dusty walk to the racing venue, and the umbrella vendors were doing a brisk business.

Women's boat racing

It wasn’t only men racing. Here a couple of women’s boats compete for the top spot in their category. I think there were eight ladies’ boats competing this year.

Meeting of boats

A few of the boats, after finishing their races, head back upstream to continue in the competition. The runaway winners of the traditional men’s category, the shimmering white-clad Luang Prabang crew, are quite noticeable in the boat at the top of the photo.

Boat race spectators

A crowd of spectator and sponsor boats watched the race from a distance. If you look closely, you’ll notice several people standing on the river bottom in the shallow water.

Boat race team

This is a fairly new team from the village where I live. The village used to be part of Sithanthai village, but was split off from it. Thus, the talent of Sithanthai was diluted. Most of these guys, though, are new to boat racing and they finished near the bottom of the competition. Their enthusiasm was not outdone by anyone, however. Here they enjoy a few post-race beers.

Boat race team

The other half of the Khokxay team. Two of their members are Nai’s brother-in-law, Aik, and Aik’s 14-year old son (not pictured here), neither of which had raced before.

Paragliders

After the race, Nai and I walked backed to the main festival area and climbed the stairs to the Bor Pen Yang rooftop bar to take in the view. Several motorized paragliders graced the area with some beautiful flying. See the next photo, also.

Paragliders

The same three as the above shot, coming in outta the sun.

Solo paraglider

The last glider aloft tries to beat the sun in setting down. I think there were five gliders in all, and you can usually see them above the Mekong on Saturday evenings during good weather.

My friend Nai

Nai contemplates the view from Bor Pen Nyang. (Or, perhaps he’s just tired.)

Taking down the festival

The next day, the welders were out dismantling the stalls of the larger vendors, like Huawei, Samsung and, yes, Apple. So, another Boat Racing Festival comes to a sparkling end.

Mekong Rising

I spent a few days in Vientiane last week just to goof off and walk around a bit. The big story was how much the Mekong had risen since my last day of work on the previous Saturday. That weekend very heavy rains had affected most of the country, launching devastating landslides and flooding tributaries. This was a small portion of what hit Myanmar and India, and it caused “only” a few deaths. However, all that water had to go somewhere, so the Mekong rose dramatically.

I read in the Vientiane Times on Friday that the river would crest in Vientiane on Saturday, the 8th, just below flood level. Some low-lying, non-embanked areas of Hadxaifong district might see some flooding, the article stated. So, guess where I live? Yup, Hadxaifong. With a lot of trepidation, Nai and I returned to the house on Saturday, but, thankfully, there was no flooding. The island marker that I use to see the height of the river was still above water. Last year, it had been submerged for a week or so, and there had been no flooding in our area.

For the past five or six days, we’ve been enjoying beautiful weather. The rain has stopped and the skies have been clear to partly cloudy, with lots of sun and high temperatures. That should keep the river down, unless there’s a lot of rain upstream, which isn’t in the forecast for now. Everything has dried out, and it’s like we’re in the dry season again. I’m sure there will be plenty more rain to come, though.

Here are a few photos of the Mekong and Vientiane.

Mekong River rising.

This is a photo taken on Wednesday, August 5th. To the right is what remains of a sand sculpture that was made for the Laos New Year back in April. It’s the largest one among five still standing. There are four smaller ones to the left, out of range of this shot. It’s a sculpture of an elephant. During the dry season, the main channel is about 15 meters beyond the sculpture and many people walk out there.

Storm cloud over Thailand

This was taken the day after the previous photo. In the lower right corner, above the street lamp, you can see that the elephant sculpture has disappeared (washed away, I believe) and the river has risen higher on the tuft of scrub brush. The next day, the scrub brush would be under water. The impressive storm cloud moving over Thailand stayed on that side of the river.

Mekong River rising.

Looking toward the Don Chan Palace Hotel, the tall building on the left, from the riverfront promenade.

Mekong diagonal

I walked down to the bottom step of the promenade and started to take a photo of the river. I stepped in some slippery stuff and managed to capture this scene just as I was falling into the shallow part of the river. I managed to hold the camera aloft, so I saved the most important thing. I crawled up to the steps and continued on as if nothing had happened. “Oh, I meant to do that.”

Mekong River rising

Looking north along the promenade. Soon, above the steps, crowds of people will gather to walk, ride bicycles, do aerobics, jog, and just hang out. Hopefully, the river will stay where it’s at.

Clouds over Thailand

Some nice clouds over Thailand above a near- flood level Mekong River.

Jerk Night in Vientiane

I copied this from my page “The Daily Commute” just in case you don’t read that page. (It’s on a tab at the top of the blog.) I’ll post from there occasionally if I think it’s interesting enough to cross post.

Tuesday, June 23

The traffic seemed quite a bit heavier than normal going in this morning, but there’s really not much to say. At night, however, the jerks were out in force.

First, I stopped at a major intersection to wait for the light to change to green. The drivers coming from the right side had the right of way at the time. Somebody in a large black pickup truck or SUV (couldn’t quite tell) pulled up behind me and after about 10 seconds or so, began honking his horn at me. Right then, there was no traffic from the right, but our light was still red. He kept insistently honking, so I kind of threw my hands up in a “what the heck do you want me to do?” gesture. I knew he wanted me to run the light or to pull over so that he or she could run through it. He kept honking until I swiveled my head around to get a glance of whoever it was and I pointed to the light. “It’s red, stupid.” I turned my head back around just in time to see a car speed through the green light. If I had tried to cross the road illegally, I’d have been wiped out. When the light changed, I purposefully took off very slowly. The black vehicle (it was a shiny new pickup) passed me on the right and turned right at the next light. Jerk Number One.

Jerk Number Two was waiting for me a few blocks down. This time I was on another major one way road and there are stop signs on the left and right at the intersection I was approaching. The traffic on both sides had stopped to wait for the line of cars and motorbikes to pass. I was near the end of that line when suddenly some fool came speeding from the left. He kind of slowed down when he came to the stop sign, but he didn’t stop. He was desperately impatient to cross the road, traffic be damned. He nosed his way into the first two lanes of the road, forcing a car to stop and causing a few motorbikes ahead of me to veer sharply out of his way, and kept on coming toward my lane. I had slowed down quite a bit by this time, but I was curious to see how far he would push the situation. (Don’t worry, I was quite prepared to stop if he didn’t.) I came right up to his van as he finally stopped half way across my lane, and as I passed him by with several feet to spare, I gestured at him in a vague way (I really wanted to flip him off) and gave him (or her) a “drop dead” look.

There was only a single motorbike not too far behind me, so Jerk No. Two decided to wait. This guy would have had to wait about five seconds to cross the road legally, but that was too long for his convenience, I suppose. That’s one of the biggest problems with truck, car and motorbike operators here. They are extremely impatient. Another problem is that they seem to only think about themselves. “I’m going nowhere, but I have to get there NOW!”

Jerk Number Three didn’t involve me, but I had a front row seat to a nearly calamitous collision. I was waiting at another red light, an intersection that is notorious for vehicles disobeying the light. From the left came a motorbike full blast through his red light while a car with the green light (it’s a four-way stop) came speeding toward Vientiane. I thought for sure this was gonna be horrendous. The bike passed right in front of the car with only a few feet to spare. This jerk was lucky tonight, but how long will his luck hold out?

I made it back safely to The Farm. Another successful ride. Any ride that I survive is a success.

Another Death in the Night

Four wrecks and, after last night, three deaths in four days of commutes into and back from Vientiane. I normally only ride that route on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but I’m filling in for another teacher this week. One more night to go.

Last night’s victim was the mayor of the village where I’m staying. Apparently, a car hit the motorbike that he was driving and, perhaps, another. I rode through the scene of the accident and saw two motorbikes down, after I had seen an ambulance racing toward Vientiane earlier. I didn’t know that anyone had been killed until Nai told me this morning that the “village boss” (mayor) had been killed right where I had ridden the previous night.

Utter insanity on the roads here. You can read more details of last night by clicking the tab at the top of the page — The Daily Commute. More later (hopefully, not more accidents).

Slaughter on the Streets

motorbike wreck

This is not my photo, nor is it a picture of what I saw last night. It was taken in Vientiane, and it is typical of an accident scene here.

Riding my motorbike back to The Farm last night, I came across two traffic accidents. The first one was horrendous–two covered bodies lay in the street down the road from Wat Si Muang, near a traffic light, though the accident occurred away from the light. There was a very large police presence and dozens of gawking onlookers. I noticed the bodies as I rode slowly through the crowd, but I didn’t see what kind of vehicles were involved. Perhaps they had already been removed or maybe the bodies were those of pedestrians. The traffic light ahead was red, so I continued to ride slowly toward it. All of a sudden, a teen-aged boy on his motorbike, who I had seen as one of the gawkers, raced past me and ran through the red light.

That’s just insanely stupid, especially after the scene he had just witnessed. But, it’s a normal occurrence here; a huge number of motorbike riders routinely ignore all traffic laws. They run through red lights and stop signs, they operate their bikes without headlights, they don’t wear helmets, they exceed the speed limit, and when they turn onto a larger road from a side street, they rarely look to see if another vehicle is approaching. They also drive drunk. Put ’em together–teen boys, booze and motorbikes–what could possibly go wrong?

Another law that people ignore is riding on the wrong side of the road. This was the most difficult abuse for me to get used to. They do this because they’re too impatient to wait for traffic to clear so that they can cross into their proper driving lane. So, they ride along the side of the road, against traffic, peering back over their shoulders to see if there is any oncoming traffic behind them, and when the proper lane is clear, they’ll cut over to that side of the road. This can be terrible at night, when a speeding biker wearing black clothing and having no headlight comes at you all of a sudden out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve out of his or her path. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

They do this as if they had special permission to turn your lane into their own legal avenue to get to the proper side of the road. At first I used to yell at them and swear and honk my horn, to let off steam. Everybody, and I mean everybody, does it, including foreigners. I’m one of the very, very few riders who will wait until traffic clears before I cross into my proper driving lane. Because of the relatively huge number of cars that the new middle class is buying, Vientiane is totally unprepared to handle all the traffic, so there is very little legal parking. People park their cars on the road, effectively cutting one of the driving lanes in half. It’s when motorbike riders going the wrong way come around one or more of these parked cars that it gets really dangerous, especially if there is heavy traffic next to you in the other driving lane. What do you do–swerve into the other lane and hope the drivers notice you and give way, hope that the other motorbike rider will use a little common sense (usually in short supply) or do you veer off to the right side of the road toward the parked car? I’ve usually been able to (cautiously) get into the other driving lane. It’s a scary proposition, just one of the many frightening things about riding a motorbike in Laos.

I don’t mean to single out motorbike riders, because drivers of other vehicles disobey the traffic laws and drive drunk, also. They, too, drive down the wrong side of the road, speed and generally drive like idiots. I would estimate, roughly, that 80 percent of motorbike riders and at least half the drivers of other vehicles would not pass a driver’s exam. Most drivers here, I’ve heard, don’t even have a driver’s license. Not surprising.

Anyway, I rode out of Vientiane toward The Farm. Just past the new U.S. Embassy there is a final traffic light. As I approached it, two ambulances raced screaming from the other direction and turned right at the light, heading toward a hospital along that particular road. I thought that there might be another accident further along. Sure enough, as I neared my turnoff, there was another large crowd of gawkers and police surrounding a scene that included a tuk-tuk that had a severely smashed-in front end. I didn’t see another vehicle, so again I don’t know that a motorbike was involved. I kind of doubt that there was, due to the magnitude of damage to the tuk-tuk. I continued on, hyper aware and extremely cautious.

It seems like every couple of weeks there is an article or letter in the Vientiane Times deploring the carnage on the roads of Laos and demanding that something be done about it. The authorities repeatedly say that they are going to crack down on those who drive drunk, speed and flout other traffic laws. However, nobody appears to be doing anything to change the situation. And the slaughter continues.

Not So Laid-Back Vientiane

Many guide books describe Vientiane as being “laid-back.” They are either out-dated or misinformed, because the capital is far from relaxing. Compared to Bangkok or Beijing, I suppose it is, but it’s nothing like it was a short ten years ago, the first time I was here.

As an example that Vientiane is changing for the worse in some ways, a few weeks ago the Vientiane Times had a second page headline that read “Businessman, driver survive hail of gunfire.” The businessman wasn’t wounded, but his driver was hit three times in the right arm. The businessman, a Mr. Tong, is a “successful entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable works,” according to the newspaper. It goes on to report

“According to his account, Mr. Tong told friends that it was the truth that there was somebody who would like to kill him but he still did not understand the reason why they wanted to do so. He noted on his status that his was a flourishing business but in a competitive sector where it was not always simple to be successful. There had been so many rumours, but on Friday he learnt firsthand the extent of the danger lurking in society. Mr. Tong added at the end of the message that he wanted a peaceful resolution and forgiveness to the person or people behind the attack.”

Yikes, perhaps one more thing to worry about while I’m riding my motorbike to the village at night after work: stray bullets.

Another concern is missing manhole covers, as was reported a week ago. Thieves have been stealing them to sell for the metal. I think they’ve been taking them from sidewalks, not main thoroughfares, because the report stated that a car had been damaged while trying to park on a sidewalk. I’d hate to come up at night on a gaping hole in the street on my motorbike. I’m pretty sure I’d be a goner.

So, Vientiane, while somewhat relaxed, is not the sleepy capital it once was. Progress or not, it’s definitely changed.

Freakish Storm

Downed trees that dragged and snapped power lines, collapsed buildings and homes, crushed billboards and damaged transmission towers were the results of a freak storm that passed through a small section of the Vientiane area this past Wednesday morning. The Vientiane Times reported that

The rain and wind blew down trees and felled utility lines creating traffic difficulties in the morning commute.

Roofs of houses and buildings and advertising signboards along the roads were blown over.

The cost of damage bill is estimated over 10 billion kip, Mr Bountham said.

[Note: $1 US = 8,000 Laos kip]

The storm just missed our small village, but the power was out from about 5 a.m. until 6 that evening. We only had a small amount of rain and moderate winds that morning, so, as I rode my motorbike to work on Thursday morning, I didn’t realize what had happened until I was a couple of kilometers outside the village. Then I started to see large trees snapped off near their bases and power lines down. Once out on Thadeua Road, the main road that runs from the border into Vientiane, I noticed more debris on the road, a few buildings that had been knocked to the ground, many trees swept over, and a main transmission tower that had been damaged by a large billboard smacking into it (this was probably why we lost our power). Crews were working on getting the power lines back up, and they were still going at it yesterday morning (Friday).

It was a frightening and disastrous storm for many people, but, luckily, there were no reports of deaths. The storm path was about 5 miles long and it ended near the new American embassy, after which I saw no damage as I made my way into the capital. As I said, our village was spared, but it does illustrate the randomness and localized nature of these sudden storms, much like tornadoes in the U.S. Midwest. Where’s the next one going to hit?

Old Cars in Vientiane

I’ve spotted quite a number of old cars in Vientiane recently. Usually I see them while I’m riding my motorbike and they’re moving along a block or so from where I’m at, so I don’t get a good look at them to see what make and model they are. However, I have seen quite a few old VW “Beetles,” the originals from what I guess would be the 1960s. Most of their exteriors looked quite aged, but they were still running.

Over the past few weeks, though, I saw these two old-timers, one parked on the side of the street and the other passing close by a few days later. I didn’t have a camera with me, so I’ve taken these photos from the Internet. While not exactly the same color, both of the old autos resembled the photos.

First was a cream-colored Studebaker Lark convertible with a black top. While not in “classic car” condition, it still looked like it was being carefully kept in good shape. Perhaps it belongs to an expat, maybe an embassy employee. My former boss in Morocco, John, the Regional English Language Officer at the American embassy, had his car shipped over, a 4-wheel drive Subaru, which he believed was the only one in Morocco. He told me that embassy personnel get a shipping allowance of 20 TONS! Small wonder that he’d brought the car with him.

John and 4-wheel drive Subaru.

Here’s John and his 4-wheel drive Subaru, the only one in Morocco, as far as he knew.

Here’s the Internet photo of the Studebaker. It’s a bit lighter colored than the one I saw, but it’s still a good resemblance.

Studebaker Lark Convertible

The other oldster that I saw was a Pontiac Tempest, sporting a faded and chipped pale blue exterior. It didn’t look nearly as well kept as the Studebaker, but it was still running. I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for other old timers now that I know there are at least a few on the roads in the capital. I wonder where they get the parts to keep them running? Here’s the Internet photo.

1966_pontiac_tempest_side_view